At 8pm on Monday, fans of recondite knowledge sat down to enjoy University Challenge on BBC2, and gazed at the face – almost as familiar as their parents’ and children’s faces – of Jeremy Paxman, handsome, sardonic and clean-shaven. Two and a half hours later, the same fans might have tuned in to Newsnight on the same channel and gazed at – yikes! – Paxman again, but now with a beard.
Smartly registering the fact that the previous show must have been pre-recorded, and that Paxman had grown his grizzled and silvered bristles on holiday, the fans sprang into action. The Twitterverse was ablaze with personal remarks about the bizarre phenomenon of a man ceasing to shave for a fortnight.
Reactions ranged from “gorgeous”, “legendary” and “very louche and distinguished” to “he looks like a vagrant”, “a rubbish Doctor Who” and “he looks like he’s making one of those ‘hostage pleads for release’ videos”. Before long, the beard had acquired its own Twitter account, @PaxmanBeard. Newsnight hasn’t enjoyed such an excitable response to an item since the bombing of Baghdad.
Paxman later explained that he’s “grown a beard” on many summer holidays, but wondered this year whether he “really needed” to shave it off to present Newsnight. Because the BBC is famously disapproving of its presenters displaying face-furniture – unless, Paxman says, “you’re lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on Only Fools and Horses, Demis Roussos or Abu Hamza”.
But why? Nothing conveys tribal-elder sagacity and alpha-male testosterone like a chin-load of Spanish moss (think Gandalf and Sauron) or twin cheekfuls of shaggy fleece (think Hemingway and Brahms). Would Marx have turned economic theory into a global movement without his spectacular forest of follicles? I don’t think so. William Shakespeare, without his sharply topiarised chin, its pointiness so expressive of wit and intelligence, would have had the face of a balding sheep. Before he acquired his storm-damaged King Lear beaver, William Golding resembled a miserable Salisbury loss adjuster. Abe Lincoln, without that curiously unkempt straggle of hedgerow, would have shown the world a very weak chin, and slavery would never have been abolished.
One must be on one’s guard, however, against the beard that goes wrong. The kind that writhes below your jaw like a burrowing animal, like Mumford & Sons’ banjo player’s; or emphasises your long chin too much, like Jimmy Hill’s; or looks as if someone’s burnt your cheeks with a flame-thrower, like Lord Sugar’s; or never, over the years, quite resolves into an actual beard, like Bob Dylan’s chronically wispy effort.
Jeremy Paxman has startled the nation by rocking up with a beard; now he must decide whether to settle for the matey Kenneth Branagh or go for the full Brian Blessed.